The president of Central African Republic (CAR) has urgently called on France and other foreign powers to help his government fend off rebels who are quickly seizing territory and approaching the capital.
Speaking to crowds in Bangui, a city of some 600,000, Francois Bozize on Thursday pleaded with foreign powers to do what they could. He pointed in particular to France, Central African Republic's former colonial ruler.
“France has the means to stop (the rebels) but unfortunately they have done nothing for us until now,'' Bozize said.
But Paris declined to offer any military assistance.
Francois Hollande, the French president, said on Thursday his country wants to protect its interests in Central African Republic and not Bozize's government.
The comments came a day after dozens of protesters, angry about a lack of help against rebel forces, threw rocks at the French Embassy in Bangui and stole a French flag.
About 200 French soldiers are already in the country, providing technical support and helping to train the local army, according to the French defence ministry.
France is encouraging peace talks between the government and the rebels, with the French foreign ministry noting in a statement that negotiations are due to "begin shortly in Libreville (Gabon)".
Laurent Fabius, the French foreign minister, meanwhile, spoke via phone with Bozize, asking the president to take responsibility for the safety of French nationals and diplomatic missions in Central African Republic.
US officials said on Thursday the State Department was closing its embassy in the country and ordered its diplomatic team to leave.
The US ambassador and about 40 others, including a number of Americans, were flown out of Bangui to Kenya, the officials said.
The UN Security Council issued a press statement late on Thursday reiterating its concern about the situation in the country and condemned the attacks.
Bozize's government earlier reached out to longtime ally Chad, which pledged to send 2,000 troops to bolster Central African Republic's own forces.
But it was unclear if the Chadian troops had all arrived, and even then, it is far from certain if the combined government forces could withstand rebel attacks.
At least four different rebel groups are involved, though their overall numbers could not immediately be confirmed.
'Thirst for justice'
Central African Republic, a landlocked nation of some 4.4 million people, has suffered decades of army revolts, coups and rebellions since gaining independence in 1960 and remains one of the poorest countries in the world.
The rebels behind the most recent instability signed a 2007 peace accord allowing them to join the regular army, but fighters’ leaders say the deal wasn't fully implemented.
Already, the rebel forces have seized at least 10 towns across the sparsely populated north of the country, and residents in the capital now fear the insurgents could attack at any time, despite assurances by rebel leaders that they are willing to engage in dialogue instead of attacking Bangui.
The rebels have claimed that their actions are justified in light of the "thirst for justice, for peace, for security and for economic development of the people of Central African Republic".